What Is Improvisation / Improvisation Is What
August 24th, 2012
What is improvisation? How do you define improvisation? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then improvisation is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. And that’s when epiphany comes! Not from the front, but from the combination of ideas that you didn’t even know were there. But I digress.
What is improvisation? To start, improvisation is always contextual. It needs a framework of experience in order to exist. To successfully improvise on the guitar, for example, you must first know how to play it. You must study the scales, melodies, and other patterns that have been identified in the past by other players of the guitar. Then, with the vicarious experiences of giants safely tucked under your musical belt, you leave it all behind, and trust your subconscious to know what to play. Improvisation is a paradox because only daily training and attention to rigor and detail can possibly prepare oneself thoroughly enough to throw all that training to the wind. As Thelonious Monk said, “Practice, then practice some more. Then forget all of it and just PLAY.”
What is improvisation? For it can be said that an improvisational mind, an extemporaneous mind, is no mind at all. For just as athletes can use their bodies to fluidly touch epiphany, they are equally limited by language to aid them in explaining it. This is because there is no ego at the moment of improvisation to be aware of itself. There is only first-level thinking. There is no you, there is only the baseball and the bat. There is no you, there is only the piano and the audience. There is no you, there is only the road, the car, the shiftless will of the traveler without destination.
Art being improvised has a will of its own; it has temporarily abducted the will of its artist. Many people report that it is as if their art is not really being created by conscious choice, but rather revealed to them from a third party, a distinct source at once apart from their training and one with it. This is the sacred state of flow, the secret samadhi, the moment of moksha, the illusion of creative power, the acceptance of otherness, the zone, on fire, in the pocket, in the groove, with it, at one, at peace, existence without awareness. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao. The Tao that *can* be named is experience, training, order, formal structure, the basis upon which our fruitless attempts at imagining must inevitably emerge. As for the eternal Tao…. well, what else can be said? You just have to be there. Or rather, because there is no experience of you to categorize the infinite moment of the present, one just has to be there. And then, because there is no “there” there, as all of the past training and future goal-worship condenses into the next now, and the next now, and the next now, one just has to be. But and now of course one just doesn’t *have* to be anything. Existence is not a “have to”. It’s not even a “must” or a “should”. Existence is. As is improvisation. For all attempts to explain the state of flow do naught but fall away to the infinity of the light looking at itself and the infinity of the sound listening to itself.
Fair enough. How about this: when is improvisation? It can be said that improvisation exists outside of time. Our daily lives are structured by the clock, by horizontal time, by workdays and alarm clocks. One minute follows the next, as one lifetime follows the next. Similarly our logic is based on linearity, a constant of horizontal time. But this is only one type of time, and only one type of logic. There is a second type of time, the time of experience, what Taoists sometimes refer to as the “infinite now”. What we might call Zen Time, the time of truth. We are all fleetingly familiar with this type of time. It’s the infinity of the first kiss. The moment of epiphany when puzzling out a deep philosophical problem. And history is rife with stories of second time: Archimedes’ Eureka, Newton’s apple, Watson and Crick’s double helix. This is the ever-present, vertical sense of time. It extends forever, yet it is only right now that it exists. It is the time of the Imaginal world, the time of symbolism itself.
The past is but a form for the improvisation of the present to dance within. Improvisation exists in the same time that free will does. You can control the future with dreams, and the past with rationalization, but there is no control of this moment. It’s the moment when all decisions made and all words spoken and all notes played speak only of themselves, and are free in the true and complete sense of the word. It is the unfolding of the lotus flower, forsaking plans and systems and structure and training, although simultaneously reliant on them in order to look and sound just the way that things look and sound. Improvisation is formless free will. The will of no one. The freedom of everyone.
What is improvisation? It’s a cat playing with a ball of string. It’s a bird flying in the air. It’s a book that reads itself and a violin that plays its own melody. It is a self-told story; a self-made man. It is nothing, the air of the moment imposing its will on our memories.